There is one thing that gives away a covert narcissist – the wolf in sheep’s clothing – even early on. Can you guess what it is?
By Shahida Arabi
We all know that that malignant narcissists (narcissists who also have antisocial traits) are manipulative and can even fool experts, psychiatrists and the most experienced of law enforcement officials. Yet there are six crucial truths about these types of manipulators that can come in handy when it comes to resisting their tactics. Use this information wisely and you can find yourself cutting the cord to a toxic relationship with one that much more safely:
1. They will unmask themselves much more quickly when they think you’re not aware of who they truly are.
Direct confrontation of their narcissism will result in further manipulation and narcissistic rage, which can cause you to remain entrenched in the cycle of abuse.
If you suspect you’re with a narcissist, the better route might be to prepare mentally on how to leave while collecting more information about their character. Watch out for the red flags and when you see them, self-validate without relying on the narcissist’s counter-explanation (which is likely to be filled with a whole lot of gaslighting, projection and half-truths). Their actions and pattern of behavior will tell you far more than their words ever will.
Pretend to be the naïve lamb rather than the wise lion and you’ll get yourself a manipulator who won’t work as hard to conceal their contempt, their malice and their joy at bringing others down. Their mask will slip all the more frequently because they don’t feel as invested in managing their image around you. They will assume you’re gullible enough to believe in their façade, which satisfies their need to feel grandiose and superior to you.
This will also give you the ability to observe their behavior more carefully because it will be less filtered by their attempts to charm you. By the time your abuser has realized that you’ve caught on, you’ll be well on your way out the door. That is why I always recommend that when victims recognize that they are dealing with a narcissistic partner, to never confront them using the term “narcissist.” It will only cause narcissistic rage and backlash that can convince you to retreat.
“Hell hath no fury or contempt as a narcissist you dare to disagree with, tell they’re wrong, or embarrass… What is really at the core of narcissists is an instability in their ability to feel and sustain feeling bigger, larger, smarter and more successful than everyone else which they need to feel stable. Narcissistic rage occurs when that core instability is threatened and furthermore threatened to destabilize them even further.” – Mark Goulston, M.D., Rage – Coming Soon From A Narcissist Near You
Rage isn’t the only response narcissists have to your awakening of the truth. In response to your public acknowledgement of their narcissism, some narcissists will work that much harder to groom you and re-idealize you, thus making you more confused about the nature of their true character.
They will do everything possible to punish you or coerce you into staying – including love-bombing you again to make you remember the good times. During the same time they’re throwing in crumbs of affection, they’re also plotting on how to best covet what resources of yours they can get before the relationship is over.
As you prepare your exit as quietly as possible (preferably with the help of a good lawyer and a safety plan) – you have a better chance of departing safely with your sanity and your finances still intact. Sure, they may think you’re a fool for the time being, but once they realize you secretly had the upper hand all along, they’ll be outraged for completely different reasons – namely, due to the loss of control.
2. One of their biggest fears is being caught and held accountable – so always document their abuse whenever possible.
Recently we’ve had a string of predators being exposed for sexual assault and harassment. It is no coincidence that many of these predators finally ‘fessed up because of being held accountable on a much larger scale this time around. Perhaps the cultural climate protected them decades ago, but when an NYTimes exposé shares the stories of numerous victims stepping forward, it’s a lot more difficult to gaslight everyone you’ve victimized into thinking they’re “crazy” or “oversensitive.” Not only do victims have more evidence, they also realize they’re not alone.
You can use this knowledge of a covert predator’s fear of exposure to your advantage. Document all incidents of abuse so that you have it on hand should you ever need to go to court, take legal action, or for the purpose of getting a restraining order.
Narcissists care deeply about their status and reputation, so if they feel they may be exposed as culpable for their crimes, they’ll scurry quickly because they will consider you a “high-risk” victim. They’re paranoid about being caught – so even just dropping a subtle hint that you mean business (for example, noting that you’ve been speaking to someone else about what’s been happening – preferably someone they can’t manipulate) can cause them to flee quicker than you can say “gaslighting.”
On documenting abuse that is not physical, Heather Debreceni, former sheriff and professional divorce coach advises:
“The best way to protect yourself: writing or journaling as much as you possibly can…download your text messages and keep them in a file. Keep your messages brief and factual, and avoid emotion, whatever you do. Emotion can’t be proved in court, but facts can. Some states also allow you to record phone conversations, so you can record threats from your abuser.”
As Debreceni notes, it is important to stay calm yourself whenever reacting to a narcissist’s provocations through text, phone calls or e-mails because the narcissist is also trying to ensure that they also have you on the record – whether they’re trying to depict you as an unfit parent or a crazy ex (while they’re the ones stalking you), remember to always appear stoic and stick to the facts when communicating with them.
Whether it be photographing injuries or stalking behavior, taking screenshots of online messages, recording phone conversations (if permitted by law in your state), saving text messages, and voicemails and/or keeping a journal of abusive incidents, it can all serve you in the future should you ever want to take legal action or even if you just want to reconnect to the reality of what you experienced.
3. Your indifference is their kryptonite.
Forget any type of petty revenge you may be plotting; malignant narcissists see all of your emotional responses to them (whether positive or negative) as attention, and they live for that shit. Instead, refocus on yourself and on rebuilding a better life (not for the narcissist, but for you). It won’t be long until you’re moving forward, kicking some serious ass and thinking less and less of the person who once terrorized you.
If you do you choose to grant them access to your emotional responses, rest assured they will use it to bolster themselves and feed off of your energy. As narcissism expert and author Dr. Martinez-Lewi puts it:
“When we live with a narcissist – mother, father, spouse, sibling or are involved with them, our psychological energy is continually sapped. Some victims of narcissists describe this process as trying to destroy and annihilate them, taking what is most precious inside away with their cruelties, chronic deceptions, hidden agendas, humiliations, threats and ambushes.”
That’s why it’s so important to go No Contact (or Low Contact if co-parenting) to prevent their parasitic ways of feasting on your empathy. By that time, you simply won’t care what they’re up to or who they’re with because you’ll know for a fact that they’re repeating a similar abuse cycle with their newest victim. And ironically, it is in that state of utter indifference that the narcissist becomes most powerless, because they know they are no longer able to control you.
4. They’re not hoping you’ll come back to them so they can give you the good relationship you truly deserve. They hope you’ll come back to them just so they can have the final say and re-traumatize you further.
Narcissists hate being “discarded” first because it represents a loss of power and a threat to their perceived superiority. After all, if you were the one who initiated the breakup, it means they didn’t get to have the complete emotional control they feel entitled to in their relationships. They need to have the last word; they need to feel like they’ve terrorized you to such an extent that you would be unable to move forward after being in a relationship with them.
So that’s why they really come crawling back and ask for a second, third and fiftieth chance. It’s not because they miss you. It’s because they miss feeling like they own you.
“When the narcissist senses that you are leaving the relationship, they will try to suck you back in… This is a common pattern in abusive relationships. There’s an abusive episode, then a reconciliation phase, then a buildup of tension, then another abusive episode. The cycle doesn’t end. With a narcissist, the blowup gets worse each time you reconcile. And that blowup is coming.” – Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, So You’re In A Relationship With A Narcissist, Now What?
5. You’re not inferior in any way to their other victims or new targets.
Remember that narcissists don’t see their relationship partners as people – they see them as objects, as sources of what psychologists call “narcissistic supply.”
However, they’d like you to believe that the reason they’re picking on you is because you’re more disposable, less than or somehow defective. That’s why they’ll compare you to their exes or their new targets. In order to resist this form of crazymaking triangulation, remember how the narcissist talked about their ex in the beginning of your relationship, in the early stages of idealizing you.
Chances are, they called their ex-partner “crazy” along with a whole other plethora of disparaging narratives – which is what they’re probably now doing to you as they relay their distortions to their latest target.
Narcissistic supply is the form of exchange that a narcissist will accept from those he is in a relationship with to gratify his insatiable needs; but this supply is not love, because narcissists are rarely capable of receiving love. – Shari Stines, Psy.D, Love and the Narcissist
They always repeat the cycle with others. To them, you are no different, even if they’d like you to think otherwise.
6. They’re not really that humble or remorseful – and pity is one of their greatest ploys.
Narcissists project an image of themselves as very charitable and humble human beings in the beginning of every relationship. It’s what makes them so compelling and charismatic to society. It’s what disarms law enforcement and their harem, allowing them to skirt the law with a slap on the wrist and no more than a dent in their reputations.
Even the most hardened police officers can witness an impressive performance of faux remorse from a narcissist they’re meeting for the first time and find themselves thinking, “Aww, how noble.” You look at the same performance after years of being with them and see a snake attempting to put on a furry dog costume.
Don’t get me wrong: some people truly are modest and humble, which can be wonderful traits. Narcissists, on the other hand, use the image of modesty to mask their true haughty interiors. A narcissist who is truly arrogant and contemptuous may hide it well during the first few months of a relationship (though there may be tiny tells through their facial expressions, covert put-downs and so on) but their belief that they are inherently superior will eventually reveal itself.
Another tactic narcissists bank on when manipulating you involves the art of the pity ploy. Narcissists will try to latch onto your sympathy when they see no other recourse or even as a primary tool to sweep you off of your feet.
That’s why they give you half-assed “apologies” without a concrete change in their behaviors or a true acknowledgement of the harm you must have suffered. That’s also why they present you with sob stories from the onset of the relationship so you’re inclined to see them as victims rather than the true perpetrators.
It’s why they these types of manipulators can even be self-deprecating as a way to pull off their “little boy” or “little girl” act. Seemingly defenseless people are always more appealing to our natural compassion, after all – and so their crocodile tears and pity ploys work – and they work really, really well.
Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, notes that an appeal to your sympathy is actually one of the most powerful ways a manipulator with antisocial traits gets away with his or her abusive behavior. As she writes:
“If, instead, you find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to 100 percent that you are dealing with a sociopath… I am sure that if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him.”
In order to be a strategic survivor, you have to be able to recognize a manipulator’s pity ploys immediately and resist, especially when there is no actual change in their harmful behavior when they’re called out.
When you start to see how fake their so-called remorse truly is, you’ll find you have much less sympathy for their excuses for horrendous behavior. This will bring you farther away from your idealized notions of their fabricated conscience and that much closer to forging your freedom from the narcissist.
Barron, C. (2014, August 24). If You Are the Target of Narcissistic Abuse. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
DomesticShelters.org. (2015, October 5). How to Prove Nonphysical Abuse in Court. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
Goulston, M. (2012, February 09). Rage-Coming Soon From a Narcissist Near You. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
Martinez-Lewi, L. (2014, March 12). Narcissists Psychologically Feed Off of Your Life – Protect Yourself! Retrieved November 20, 2017.
Sarkis, S. (2015, December 29). So You’re In a Relationship with a Narcissist, Now What? Retrieved November 20, 2017.
Stines, S. (2017, March 12). Love and the Narcissist. Psych Central. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
Stout, M. (2006). The sociopath next door: The ruthless versus the rest of us. New York: Broadway Books.
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About Shahida Arabi, Bestselling Author
Shahida Arabi is a summa cum laude graduate of Columbia University graduate school, where she studied the effects of bullying across the life-course trajectory. She is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of three books, including Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself, featured as a #1 Amazon Bestseller in three categories and as a #1 Amazon bestseller in personality disorders for twelve consecutive months after its release. Her most recent book, POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, was also featured as a #1 Amazon best seller in Applied Psychology.
She is the founder of the popular blog for abuse survivors, Self-Care Haven, which has millions of views from all over the world. Her work has been shared and endorsed by numerous clinicians, mental health advocates, mental health professionals and bestselling authors. For her undergraduate education, Shahida graduated summa cum laude from NYU where she studied English Literature and Psychology. She is passionate about using her knowledge base in psychology, sociology, gender studies and mental health to help survivors empower themselves after emotional abuse and trauma. Her writing has been featured on The National Domestic Violence Hotline, Salon, The Huffington Post, MOGUL, The Meadows, Thought Catalog and Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Monica O’Neal’s website.